There were no seminars at the Capitol Audiofest yesterday. Gary Gill, the organizer of the show, invited the DC area headphone club to come to the show and set up a bunch of tables in the room that Tom and I used for the seminar room the day before. If you haven’t noticed personal listening has become a very big deal…think Beats, Audeze, HiFiman etc. Most audiophile trade shows now feature an entire ballroom or section dedicated to headphones, portable playback devices, headphone amps and small USB DACs. The headphone business is now worth several billion dollars annually according to the CEA. The accessories category is one of the fastest growing areas in the audio market.
And there is a quest for high fidelity in the headphone segment. However, Beats headphones do not fit into that category. They produce rather poor audio fidelity but they look great and are the choice of celebrities, so there you go. But Beats did reinvigorate the headphone category in ways that no one anticipated a few short years ago. And they reaped huge rewards from their efforts…thanks to the catalyst provided by Monster.
The DC club was a special addition to the CAF. Just down the hall from the seminar room (which was adjacent to the Madison Ballroom where I was set up) was CanMania. Vendors in that ballroom were offering DACs, headphone amps, portable high-resolution players, in-ear monitors and a wide selection of headphones for attendees to audition and purchase. I made my way into that room for a quick survey and saw my friends from A&S and Oppo (yes, Oppo was there with the HA-1 and their new PM-2 headphones).
Clearly, the market for portable audio is huge. And there has been a huge uptick in the number of products that cater to quality conscious consumers of all ages (who else could afford a $2400 portable player like the top of the line A&S unit?) but I think the younger demographic are the ones flocking to the new smaller and better sounding equipment. Of course, we still have the problem of “real ” fidelity when it comes to the source content but that’s an issue we already know about.
At one of the DC Headphone room tables, I spoke to John and Frank about a rather curious arrangement of gear that I noticed on the table. It was a Chord Hugo USB DAC headphone amp with an Astell Kern AK120 Titan MQS Duel DAC Audio System connected by a Silver Dragon Toslink Form Fit Digital Cable….held together with a couple of very large rubber bands! Frank explained that this arrangement was less about a portable listening system (it was never going to fit in anyone’s pocket) but that he uses it as his home music server. The DAC inside the A&S device is really good and Chord does make very high-end gear (I love the look and feel of their equipment) but I wouldn’t spend upwards of $4000 for something I had to hold together with a couple of rubber bands.
[NOTE: Another reader, Chris, came by yesterday with a small transparent plastic box with a complete DIY Wolfson DAC equipped digital music player device that I’m going to build and check out. His setup does just about everything that the Chord and A7S device does…for about $100. Stay tuned]
Figure 1 – An image of the Chord Hugo and A&K player with the digital connection cable.
So I reached inside my pocket and I pulled out the HTC One M8 Harman Kardon Edition Sprint phone that I had been showing off during the show. I asked both John and Frank, “if the audio on this Smartphone is indistinguishable from your Rube Goldberg setup with the Chord and A&S player AND costs around $230 (with a Sprint plan) AND does ALL of the things a state-of-the-art Smartphone does…why would anyone spend 20 times more? And the HTC fits so nicely in my pocket!
They didn’t have a reply…something about the incredible audio quality of the DAC was all I can remember.
Our problems in audio playback are not the delivery devices. Go ahead and take your pick with regards to hardware (DAC, Headphone amp etc) but once we get over the bridge we’re on, the business model for dedicated high-end players goes away. And guess what, we’re already half way across that bridge.